Friday Discourse (96)
Sharing Power in Democracy
In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the most celebrated historian on the ancient empire, Edward Gibbon, started his discussion in 1776 on the constitution of the empire during the Antonines with the fol-lowing paragraph:
“The obvious definition of a monarchy seems to be that of a state, in which a single person, by whatsoever name he may be dis-tinguished, is intrusted with the execution of laws, the management of the revenue, and the command of the army. But unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians, the authority of so formidable a magistrate will soon degenerate into despot-ism. The influence of the clergy, in an age of superstition, might be usefully employed to assert the rights of mankind; but so intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been on the side of the people. A martial nobility and stubborn commons, possessed of arms, tenacious of property, and collected into constitutional assemblies, form the only balance capable of preserving a free constitution against enterprises of an aspiring prince.”
The above analysis of Gibbon presents three observations regarding the preserva-tion of freedom and rights of people in a society. One is entrusting it to a monarch, which has been the commonest practice in history. Abuse of power in this case became irresistible and such nations quickly became attended by the evil of despotism. The Prince who would come to the throne with the approval of the people and amidst their jubilation has transformed into a formidable enemy. At home he would violate their rights; and abroad he would turn them into subjects of hardship and danger of war in service of his ever-growing ambition to cap-ture and control the treasures of other na-tions.
It became necessary to therefore regulate the behaviour of these princes and religion was the chief instrument. With its emphasis on piety, service to God and the concept of Hereafter, religion has on many occasions helped to daunt the ambitions of rulers, par-ticularly when they became inclined more to piety than to iniquity. Mankind under such circumstances would breath the air of free-dom.
But the breath was usually short. For the fact that it emphasizes piety as a cardinal requisite for successful leadership – and few men are given to piety – governments led by pious people hardly live long after their founders without being embraced by the wicked. The fight put against the tyranny of the Prince by the clergy has in most occa-sions failed. In the history of Europe in par-ticular, the church has left much to be de-sired: it chose to become a collaborator so much so that Gibbon could find the courage to assert that “the church has seldom been on the side of the people.”(Please do not waste your time writing a rejoinder to Ed-ward Gibbon: one, he is already dead; two, the clergy among his contemporaries have already done that by calling him an ‘un-believer’ desiring to write not only about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire but ‘the decline and fall of Christianity’! Yet, among the people and historians of his age, he enjoyed the celebrity of being the ‘His-torian of the Roman Empire.’ How distant were the people from their church!)
This failure of people to find protection in absolute monarchy or in the one regulated by the clergy, they were compelled to trust no one but themselves. The struggle to do so has preoccupied the history of Europe in the last four centuries.
Not withstanding all we said about the ills of monarchy – where power is entrusted in a single individual – and the possible prospects of a republic – where power is shared between the executive and the senate, the choice could best be left to circumstance. Each of them has its advantages and disad-vantages.
In people not used to freedom and inde-pendence, or in periods of civil discord and decline of affairs of a nation, history has preferred to forego the luxury of fragment-ing power. It opts for empowering the Prince with more power to enable the restoration of law and order necessary for reform and de-velopment.
It is an irony that the above passage of Gibbon was the first paragraph on the emer-gence of Augustus (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. The empire witnessed prolonged civil strife and social degeneration. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, strongly felt that a strong leadership is the only guarantee to the opportunities of reform and reclamation of the dignity and prosperity of the Empire. The achievements of Augustus were calcu-lated from the onset of his rule. He started by modifying the composition of the senate to suit his purpose. He made his Roman citi-zens receptive of his idea for reform with him at the helm. On this Gibbon said: “It was dangerous to trust the sincerity of Au-gustus; to seem to distrust it was still more dangerous. The respective advantages of monarchy and a republic have often divided speculative inquirers; the present greatness of the Roman state, the corruption of man-ners, and the license of the soldiers, supplied new arguments to the advocates of mon-archy; and these general views of gov-ernment were again warped by the hopes and fears of each individual…
“After a decent resistance the crafty ty-rant submitted to the orders of the senate; and consented to receive the government of the provinces and the general command of the Roman armies, under the well-known names of Proconsul and Imperator. But would receive them only for ten years. Even before the expiration of that period, he hoped that the wounds of civil discord would be completely healed, and that the republic, restored to its pristine health and vigour, would no longer require the danger-ous interposition of so extraordinary a magi-strate.”
Even today similar things happen when the constitution of a nation is suspended or a state of emergency is declared. Sometimes, military takes over when it is evident that politicians are leading the nation to water-loo.
However, the overwhelming fashion to-day is for powers to be separated – or frag-mented, as the Americans would call it – further than what the ancients practiced. In the 17th century, the English Philosopher John Lock (1632-1704) dismissed the divine right of kings to rule and argued vehemently in support of civil governments. He, as later did the French philosopher Charles-Louis Monstesquieu, advanced the concept of separation of powers as a guarantee against reincarnation of despotism. Power in this doctrine is to be shared between the exec-utive and the representatives of the people with the judiciary as the arbitrator.
Nowhere were the thoughts of the two philosophers profoundly expressed than in the American constitution. Though the world seemed to be running away from the tyranny of the Prince, it was clear to them that unless checks were introduced, the legislature may usurp power and make re-publics difficult to govern by the executive. Two hundred years after the Philadelphia convention where the doctrine of separation of powers was adopted, the balance of power between the executive and the legisla-ture is still attained only with great caution and manifest labour. The separation is most threatened when the same party controls the executive and the legislature.
Constitutional governments based on the doctrine of separation of powers do not seem to be yielding the desired results in most developing countries. In Nigeria par-ticularly, three (or say two and a half) repub-lics were lost to military coups. While the first could hardly be justified, the second and third could not be condemned as lacking merit. As long as they lasted, different arms of government in the second and third re-publics failed to ensure good governance through checking the excesses of one an-other. Contrarily, the pitch was divided into two, with the legislature and the executive on one side and the people they claim to rep-resent on the other. The result of this col-laboration was the proliferation of corrup-tion and rigging of elections to sustain lead-ership.
At the level of states, there was little to show that the legislature has ever tried to check the excesses of the executive. Once their material demands were met, lawmakers were always ready to grant the executive the position of an emperor. Our ‘emperors’ however, were not like Augustus, for instead of working towards higher ideals in leader-ship and governance, they stooped down to the bestial level of material gratification. This tantamount to the death and burial of merit and accountability leading to the logi-cal conclusion of retaining power in order to perpetuate the ongoing injustice.
That was where the executive collabor-ated with the legislature. There were occa-sions, very few though, when the governor would stand his ground on principle, per-haps belonging to a different ideology from the legislature that was hell-bent on continu-ing with the old practice of squander and theft. The result was that such governors got kicked out of their position, using the im-peachment clause in the constitutional that was meant to safeguard the interest of the people. The impeachment of the first exec-utive governor of Kaduna State was a lead-ing example. That event alone did the great-est damage to the cause of the common man in a democracy. It has proved that little hope is there in our wholesale adoption of the American constitution.
From then, the legislature has become powerful a monster dreaded by the exec-utive. A compromise with evil has become necessary if the executive desires any achievement, no matter how small. ‘Serve us and remain, or challenge us and go’ became the maxim that defined the relationship be-tween the legislature and the executive. Thus was the transformation of the legisla-ture from restraint to constraint.
In this republic, the fourth in our experi-ment, we have enough examples to cite. Apart from the experience of the President and the National Assembly or that of each state governor with his legislature, at the local government level, crisis are daily em-erging between the chairmen and their coun-cillors. Last Tuesday we learnt the disband-ment of Hong Local Government council the Governor of Adamawa State for the deterio-ration of law and order in the area arising from the seemingly unending strife within local council. The truth of such acrimony is always one: the chairmen, who in many cases may not be as pious as Balarabe Musa, might have failed to tow the line of the legislature on matters of allowances or con-tracts though different excuses may be given to cover the actual cause.
If such acrimony breeds hindrance, co-operation and compromise breeds corruption and maladministration. We remember that last year when it was under a leadership of Okadigbo, the National Assembly was more critical of the budget; they were able to ask questions and to insist on getting clarifica-tions. This year, under the ongoing peace treaty, few questions, if any, were asked. Perhaps, the executive have become more competent in preparing budgets so much so that the 2001 bill could pass without much fuss at the assembly or the legislature has agreed, in pursuit of our common good, to cooperate with the executive and overlook its errors. No one should be deceived about what is going on.
Despite these shortcomings and others which we have been discussing about in the past two weeks, we do not feel that solutions should be sought outside the province of the civil government as it happened in the past, unless if the situation becomes really critical – something very far, though Rawlings has started singing the coup song in Ghana. We believe, especially with how the last three military governments run the country to standstill, the third option of Edward Gibbon is our best guarantee to freedom and devel-opment. It is important however to suggest that the constitution needs review such that the realities of our society will be taken into cognisance. Our suggestions may be few but they are fundamental to the success of the republic. Briefly, they are:
1. Transfer of power to impeach an executive from the legislature to the judiciary
2. Further assertion of the independence of the judiciary to enable it the courage required of impartial umpire.
3. Raising the educational standard of political office holders.
4. Revisiting an earlier suggestion of reducing tenures to a single term.
5. Rejection of zoning, power shift and other rubbish.
6. Enforcement of lifetime ban on citizens proved of corrupt practices from participating in politics.
These suggestions, and perhaps few more, will, God willing, be the topic of our dis-course next week.
1 August 2001